Football star and former Formula 1 boss caught up in fakes case

Jonathan Zebina and Flavio Briatore deny knowing paintings may be forgeries


Former F1 motor racing supremo Flavio Briatore, once the boss of the Benetton, later Renault, team, was called to the Palace of Justice in Turin last month after the city’s public prosecutor seized a painting from his collection as part of an investigation into a ring of forgers. The Italian investigation puts in the spotlight the problems associated with the market for Italian post-war art, which has risen in value and is, it is believed, vulnerable to forgery.

In 2008, Briatore acquired around 30 works by the late Italian pop artist Mimmo Rotella from JZ Art Trading. The Milan-based gallery, which is now shut, was owned by the high-profile French footballer Jonathan Zebina, who played for the Turin club Juventus from 2004 to 2010. One of the Rotella pieces, Wise, 1962, has been seized by the public prosecutor in Turin. The work, which hung in Briatore’s Monte Carlo home, would be worth an estimated E30,000 if authentic. Briatore and Zebina were called in as witnesses and are not suspected of committing crimes.

Briatore says that he “left the works in storage at the [JZ Art] gallery for a little while… one work was handed over to me [Wise, 1962]. Then the artistic director of the gallery, Fabrizio Quiriti, asked me if I wanted to exchange some of the works with other pieces, and I agreed.” The suggestion now is that fakes were introduced to the collection at this point, although it is unclear if this was done knowingly, and whether they had been supplied by Michelangelo Lanza, an art and carpets dealer based in the village of Viguzzolo, east of Turin. Lanza has since been informed by the Turin carabinieri that he is under investigation for forging works of art. In 2005, according to La Repubblica newspaper, Lanza received a two-year prison sentence and a fine of E2,800 for selling a forged De Chirico painting. It has not been possible to contact Lanza or Quiriti.

Zebina, meanwhile, says: “Wise was dispatched to Briatore without my knowledge together with a selection of other pieces from my gallery inventory by Fabrizio Quiriti, the former artistic director of JZ Art.” Zebina says that he has taken out criminal lawsuits against Quiriti for his alleged negligent management and administration of the gallery, which Zebina claims led to the closure of the Milan space. But Briatore says: “I want to stress that I have full confidence in Quiriti’s good faith and in his professionalism.”

Zebina says that he initiated the investigation in Turin: “As a collector of Rotella, I have a long-established relationship with the Mimmo Rotella Foundation and its president, lawyer William Rocco. We both aim to combat counterfeit works [by Rotella].” The market for Rotellas has increased over the past ten to 15 years, with the record price for a work at auction set in 2003 at Sotheby’s, London, when Con un Sorriso (With a Smile), a 1962 collage on canvas, fetched £509,600 (est £30,000-£40,000). The Rotella Foundation confirmed that it is examining the works seized in the investigation. A spokesman says: “The foundation closely monitors the market and works in circulation.”